It has become commonplace to complain that Americans are living in different realities–to respond to statements or opinions that seem particularly bizarre with some version of Barney Frank’s famous line, “on what planet do you spend most of your time?” But what if that isn’t hyperbole? What if Red and Blue Americans really are occupying different worlds?
What if America is actually going through some sort of “virtual” replay of the civil war?
My husband and I eat breakfast at a local coffee shop most mornings with a friend who shares our political obsessions. Yesterday, during a breakfast discussion about the embarrassing series of congressional fiascos that finally led to last minute legislation avoiding–or at least postponing–the fiscal cliff, my husband shook his head in wonder: as he noted, Congress had set this scenario up and thus seen it coming for at least 18 months during which it had done absolutely nothing. Why? It seemed incomprehensible.
Our friend offered his theory: The Republicans swept into office in 2010, convinced they would retake both the Senate and the White House in 2012. During the campaign, they continued to believe that Romney would win the election, and that they would then have the opportunity and power to fashion their own “fix” of the impending sequester, probably along the lines of the Ryan budget. When Romney lost, and the Senate became even more firmly Democratic, they were stunned. They hadn’t prepared for that eventuality, and they’re still trying to find their bearings.
In the aftermath, the party’s internal fissures have also become more pronounced. At this point, the GOP is like a fish out of water, flopping frantically this way and that on the floor.
I would dismiss my friend’s explanation as utterly fanciful if there were not so many emerging reports that support it. Somehow, despite all of the data and polling and anecdotal evidence to the contrary, despite Nate Silver, a significant number of Republican political figures managed to convince themselves that up was down, blue was red, and America would never re-elect that black guy, especially in a sour economy. When Obama won, they were genuinely shocked–and unprepared to participate in divided government.
I was still mulling over this increasingly plausible explanation when I got to the gym, climbed on the treadmill, and turned on the television. There was Chuck Todd in front of a chart showing the massive increase in the number of single-party states–states where one party or the other controls both houses of the legislature and the Governor’s mansion. (Indiana, as we know, is one of those states.) There are exceptions, but most of the Republican-dominated states are in the old South (i.e., the Confederacy); most of the Democratic-dominated states are in the Northeast and on the west coast.
Representatives elected from lopsidedly one-party states don’t worry about challenges from the opposing party; they worry about primaries. So the Republicans pander to the rabid rightwing base of their party, and the Democrats play to the intransigent left of theirs. As the number of “safe states” multiplies, so does the number of unyielding, uncompromising ideologues.
Even in the absence of that political calculus, however, when people come from an environment that is dominated by a particular political philosophy, it takes effort to seek out and understand competing points of view. Such environments reinforce those “bubbles” we create by our media habits and friendship choices. Pretty soon, other perspectives seem fanciful and/or deluded, and we lose our ability to function within them.
The question is, how do we engage in anything remotely like self-government under these circumstances?